NEW ORLEANS — About a third of New Orleans firefighters scheduled to work Saturday morning called out sick, causing several fire companies to only be able to man their trucks with two people.
47 firefighters of the roughly 140 scheduled called out, putting one pump truck and one ladder truck out of service as a result. Two heavy rescue units that would have responded to traffic accidents are out of service as well.
The acute manpower shortage came amid a labor battle between Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration and the New Orleans Fire Department.
Union leaders argue the severely understaffed department's overtime policy keeps money from firefighters. The city, in response to a boycott of firefighters working voluntary overtime, canceled many vacations and other leave time in what officials said was an attempt to meet staffing gaps.
It was not immediately clear how many firefighters, if any, were out sick Sunday.
Aaron Mischler, president of the New Orleans Fire Fighters Association Local 632, told WWL-TV Saturday's sick calls were not coordinated but did say several firefighters cited exhaustion and stress as their reason for missing work.
"We are critical mass, this is a critical safety concern that we do not have enough firefighters right now to run this department adequately and safely," Mischler said.
He said running firetrucks with two people is "absolutely, positively unsafe not just to the firefighters but to the public." While not illegal to disobey, the National Fire Prevention Association requires a minimum of three people to operate a truck.
During a press conference Saturday Afternoon, New Orleans Fire Department Superintendent Tim McConnell confirmed a third of firefighters working Saturday called in sick and accused them of staging a sickout, which he called "extortion and bullying at its best."
He said by calling out en masse, they broke a commitment they had made in a written agreement Feb. 10.
"One-third of the members who were scheduled to work today called in sick," McConnell said. "This morning, (firefighters) went back on their written word and staged a sick out."
McConnell said firefighters swore an oath to protect the residents of New Orleans, and what he called a partial strike breaks that oath at a time where the city needs its civil servants the most.
"People not showing up for their sworn duty at the worst time in the world is — I believe — unconscionable, and doing so at this time wreaks of extortion," McConnell said.
McConnell asked firefighters to come back to work.
"I am asking them to please reconsider and let us walk through this and work through these issues," McConnell said. "We're struggling to keep people safe, and there is a potential that people would be less safe, depending on what calls for service we get."
Responding to McConnell's press conference, Mischler told reporters the labor dispute could end in 30 minutes.
"We're asking (the mayor) to come to the table," Mischler said. "She told the governor she has no interest in mediation. It could end in half an hour."
Having fewer firefighters working made NOFD reduce their responses, but all calls to for help will be responded to, McConnell said.